This is a story that takes place when the Kyoto civilization is in full bloom, some 1,000 years ago.
Among several court-ladies, Lady Kiritsubo enjoys the Emperor's deepest affection. Therefore, she is envied by all the other ladies, especially by the Princess of Kokiden Palace, who has the most powerful political background of the day. She is worried, becomes ill, and decides to retire from court service. Her plea is granted, and she retires.
At her own house, Lady Kiritsubo gives birth to a beautiful baby boy, whom she names Prince Hikaru, meaning Prince Shining, because his face and appearance are so brightly beautiful. Then, before the Prince comes of age, Lady Kiritsubo dies, painfully worried about the future of her son. The Emperor is sorrowful hearing of her death. He wants to make the young Prince happy, so he lowers the young prince's status to that of a subject, for he thinks in that way the boy will be able to escape jealousy and be happy, so long as the boy has no political background. He grants a family name of Genji to the boy. Hence, the young boy is called by others either as Prince Hikaru or Prince Genji.
Prince Genji becomes a youth. A brilliant future is expected of him, as he is handsome, intelligent, and is loved by the Emperor, but some predict otherwise because the Princess of Kokiden Palace, the Minister of the Right and other influential people do not like him. However, he is more than popular among the young ladies of the palace, and is especially adored by Lady Oborozukiyo, the daughter of the Minister of Right.
Prince Genji is already married to Lady Aoi, but he is idolizing Lady Fujitsubo as the ideal woman, the Emperor's latest lover, whom everybody says is the exact likeness of his deceased mother. Genji often sees the Lady until he finally falls madly in love with her. Finally he stealthily enters her bower, on a rainy night, and confesses his love. The Lady has secretly been in love with the charming Prince, but refuses because she is afraid of deceiving the Emperor. However, she cannot resist his passionate courtship and yields to him.
Spring comes. At a palace party, Prince Genji dances "Shun O Ten," a most difficult dance number, so gracefully and is very warmly applauded by all the spectators, including the Emperor. He is happy and drinks more wine than usual. That night, while he is rambling under cherry-trees, he is caught by Lady Oborozukiyo who passionately whispers love. She does not mind the existence of Lady Fujitsubo, nor is she scared of the wrath of the Princess of Kokiden Palace. Intoxicated, Genji forgets himself and accepts her. However, as soon as he regains his senses, he becomes disgusted with himself.
Lady Aoi is a haughty young lady, cool and calm. She does not even try to comfort Genji. Lady Fujitsubo is scared to see him after the affair. Genji is dissatisfied with all of this.
Summer comes. Genji goes out on an excursion, stepping out of the metropolis, into the suburbs. Lured by the pretty tune of music, he comes to a small but dainty house, in which he finds an exceptionally beautiful young girl, Murasaki. She is a niece of Lady Fujitsubo, living a hermetical life with her governess. Learning of Murasaki's true identity, he wants to adopt her in order to shape her into an ideal woman, especially because she is a relative of his lover Lady Fujitusbo. He almost forcibly takes her with him to Kyoto, to his Mansion of Nijo.
Lady Aoi has become with child by Genji, and is not feeling well since some time ago. When he visits her alcove, Lady Aoi asks him coldly, with much irony, about the health of Murasaki, his new protégé, and purposely talks about the rumour about Lady Fujitsubo expecting, hinting that she is not ignorant of his adventures. Genji wishes to see Lady Fujitsubo to make sure, but she dodges him stubbornly. To his surprise, he is found by none other than the Princess of Kokiden Palace while he is staying in the alcove of Lady Fujitsubo. As he is leaving dejectedly, he is pursued by Lady Oborozukiyo who tries to tempt him. Genji is very well aware that the Princess is watching them from somewhere, but daringly yields to the temptation, as an act of rebellion against politically influential people.
Lady Aoi finally dies, after giving birth to a baby. Before she breathes her last, she speaks sweetly to Genji as if she were anxious to forgive him.
Pressure by the influential people is gradually laid upon Genji and his friends. The Minister of Left, who is the brother of the late Lady Aoi, is relieved of his portfolio. Genji feels danger is nearing him, so he asks for a vacation and with Imperial permission, he leaves Kyoto and retires to Suma Village. The Princess of Kokiden Palace is pleased. Lady Fujitsubo sympathizes with him. Young Murasaki says she will miss him deeply.
Baron Harima, who is the elder brother of Lady Kiritsubo who gave birth to Genji, wants to protect him from political dangers, and invites him to his mansion in Akashi. He is quite sympathetic for he himself had been ousted from the court by the same clique, some twenty years ago.
In the midst of autumn, a political change takes place owing to the death of the Emperor, who is followed by the Princess of Kokiden Palace. The Crown Prince ascends the Throne. In compliance with the last will of the late Emperor, Prince Genji is called back to Kyoto to be appointed as the Minister of Left. In Kyoto, he sees the baby boy Fujitsubo gave birth to and is surprised to find the baby resembles him closely. He is mentally tormented by the remainder of his sin.
Genji is now officially married to Lady Awaji. Young Murasaki, his protégé, has blossomed into a young lady. Murasaki is slightly jealous of Lady Awaji, but by his persuasion decides to live together with them in the Mansion of Nijo.
While new hope and power are about to come to him, he learns that Lady Fujitsubo is dying at her hermitage. He rushes to her death-bed and learns that she has always cared for him. However, tormented by her guilty conscious for deceiving the late Emperor, she will not permit him to take her hand into his.
Lady Awaji has become pregnant. Genji is delighted to learn of it, but the Lady is unable to stand the strain, for the coming baby is not by him. Finally, she confesses the whole thing to Genji. He is infuriated. But the young Lady Murasaki stops his angered hand. She reminds him of his affair with Lady Fujitsubo. Genji realizes that he has no right to be angry at his wife. His own sin has come back to him. So Genji releases his wife together with her lover. After their departure, Genji takes Murasaki's hands gently in his, and implores her to be good to him because he has nobody to rely upon now.
Genji begins to play the koto Lady Awaji used to play so fondly. The moon rises high up in the sky. As Lady Murasaki watches him, he keeps on playing slowly but beautifully. The gentle breeze of autumn comes to soothe his playing hands. The air is filled with music. Pathos is distinctly felt in this scene.